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Miscellaneous thoughts and ramblings
Tuesday, September 20, 2005
Book Review – The Bell Curve
The Bell Curve
Intellignece and Class Structure in American Life

Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray

It has been 11 years since this important book was published. It initially raised a firestorm of protest and controversy, though, as far as I know, none of its findings have been seriously challenged in the intervening years.

The Bell Curve is a very detailed scholarly review of what is known about the distribution of intelligence in America. As such it is primarily (as the title suggests) a book about statistics. It does not attempt to explain the biological roots of intelligence; it is not a neurology or psychology book. It rather deals with populations, and asks questions such as: Is intelligence an actual quantity that can be reliably measured? Does this quantity predict other useful things with any accuracy? How does this quantity vary between individuals and between groups?

The authors with painstaking references to the original data assert and support the following points:

The authors then build on this foundational data by examining current affirmative action policies, both in education and in the workplace. They show that the magnitude of the advantage currently given to ethnic minorities is dramatically higher than what would be defensible given the initial stated goals of affirmative action, i.e. to assure that the institutions are casting a very wide net in encouraging applicants and that in cases in which two applicants have very similar qualifications, every effort is made to give the minority applicant the nod. Current affirmative action policies don't resemble these goals at all and have essentially devolved into two separate applications processes, one for whites (and non-protected minorities such as Asians) and another for protected minorities. These processes are entirely independent of each other and applicants from one pool are never compared to applicants in the other. The only goal is to assure that the mandated numbers of minority applicants are accepted, regardless of how low the qualifications of those applicants are, or how high those of the white applicants are. The statistical differences reported in the qualifications between accepted white and minority applicants are surprising – usually over a full standard deviation. The authors argue that, besides the obvious cost to the white (often poor white) applicants who lose the positions to much less qualified minority applicants, society in general pays other serious costs, including making minority achievement suspect, and lowering the economic efficiency of companies that are forced to hire much less productive employees.

In the last chapter the authors recommend remedies to the problems that they assert are caused by policies that ignore variability in intelligence. They do not recommend abandoning affirmative action, but instead suggest returning to the radical vision of individualism imagined by the Founding Fathers in which Americans are thought primarily as individuals. Then if small advantages must be given to groups that have been historically disadvantaged, they do not object, but this advantage must be small in comparison to the weight given the individual's achievements.

The book is very interesting, but some parts are a bit dry, and it is not short. Nevertheless I think it's must-reading for any who still support affirmative action, or who believe that the Federal Government's role in the last 50 years in education and employment has been positive. It's been 11 years. It would be nice to see some policymakers take it seriously.
Previous book reviews:
Ender's Game Ralphie
Guns, Germs, and Steel Doctor Bean
Ender's Game Doctor Bean
One Book List Oven
People see what they want to see, and hear what they want to hear. I doubt that anyone who supports affirmative action will take this book seriously enough to read it, much less evaluate it in a fair manner. I think it sounds very interesting, and will probably read it sometime in the nearest future, but I know a number of people who would dismiss it by summary alone. : (
Irina: I really think you'd like it. It seems right up your alley. By the way, it makes an interesting contast to Guns, Germs, and Steel. (There's a link to my review of it at the bottom of the post for those who don't know what I'm talking about.) If GG&S is right and environment was all-important in determining the characteristics of the societies that evolved in different places on the planet, the question that a reader of both books is forced to ask is: what differences in environment lead to some populations having selective pressure that favored individuals with more intelligence, while other populations had having selective pressure that favored individuals for other qualities, like physical strength?
Yes, that's definitely sounds like something worth reading. Unfortunately, I'll only be able to discuss it in the circle of like-minded. : ( I wish people weren't so arrogant about their points of view.
I actually am in favor of suppressing the comments of this book. The reason is that I don't want people who resent the cognitive elite to start targeting us for discrimination, or worse.

(Dumb people - the above paragraph, um, group of words, means that I really, really like you and want to be friends.)
Ralphie: When the revolution comes, you and I won't have any problem passing as dumb people!
Speek fer yersef
Intelligence is a touchy thing. You say a group is less smart than another group and - hey - you may be right, but you're a jerk for saying it. It takes an incredible dedication to principle (or a personality disorder) to be comfortable with annoying large numbers of people.
Oven: You're completely right. There's a good reason why this is mostly banned from polite conversation. The problem is that now lots of government policy and law is based on assumptions that are false, like: early interventions like head start improve outcomes, affirmative action by breaking from historical prejudice will lead to a next generation that can compete on their own merits, or that intelligence tests have no validity in the workplace because they discriminate curlturally or have no relationsip to worker performance. These things, it turns out, are just false. So, someone has to eventually say that to try to correct public policy. If it was just your neighbors who believed something false, you'd blow it off, but there's a huge edifice that's been built on a very bad foundation (with good intentions most likely).
I've had a bit of experience with intelligence (not my own). Don't fret. My daughter is a genius. I knew when she was a baby. At less than a year she could recite poetry. She is also on the autistic spectrum. I've used statistics more than any other college course (with the exception of those that they have since let me sit in on at Yale Med) in order to study IQ. The first time she took an IQ test, I was present. She was three. She tested out on the word "Ancient" she knew that. I was like a frantic hockey mom. But then I started to get pissed off. Because the word that she missed before ancient was nuissance. I (being young and stupid) didn't say things like nuissance in front of my little girl -though certainly she would oft qualify. The next words she knew, but that is not my point. My point is that one, clever mums can teach to the test, which I have done skillfully since. But if English had not been my first language or if my vocabulary did not include "ancient" or "nuissance" then my daugter would have scored even lower. So, parenting and test readyness is a major factor in IQ. Had she been unable to attend, or more interested in the lamp or the hem of her dress, her score would be different. There are just too many factors.

That said, I understand the necessity of quanifiable results. Studies need a measuer and IQ is simply that. Without numbers, there is no funding, no results. So while I hate the idea of putting our minds, our bodies or our children on curves of any kind. There must be a way to make research objective and duplicatible.

Whatever... I am glad to not be a genius myself! (And glad to have a daugter to adore, wherever she falls on the curve.)

I too have read this book.

I also remember thinking about the math of two highly intelligent individuals reprodcing, and that their offspring would statistically be less intelligent than they are. That fascinates me.
Aurielle: Welcome! How did you find us? I'm glad I turned you on to the book, but be forewarned: it's not short, and it doesn't sizzle with excitement.
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